China's Olympic Nightmare

Posted at Global Notions

The unthinkable happened yesterday at the National Stadium and hundreds of millions of Chinese fans across the country were finally brought back to reality during what has been an Olympics marked by national celebration.  Not only has China clearly dominated the individual sports (minus swimming) which has provided them an insurmountable lead in the gold medal race, but the Games themselves have been an overwhelming success to both their national and international audiences.  Air quality is great, volunteers are perfect, no spitting, no pushing, taxis are clean, food is splendid, venues are spectacular, no protests, greatest Olympics ever, the last iconic Olympics; all comments one can read in the news or hear in the streets around Beijing and throughout the world.  Yet, in the midst of all the good, China's sport's god will not be performing miracles this Olympics.

Liu Xiang had the weight of a nation on his shoulders leading up to the Beijing Olympics.  I posted this advertisement that has been running in China all summer as a reminder of the heights one can rise to (or be thrust to) in the rapidly modernizing, individualizing China.  At the end, the viewer sees a Chinese athlete being lifted by the nation to the top pedestal of a medal stand.  The athlete remains faceless, yet there should be no doubt.  He is Liu Xiang, China's famous hurdler, a national hero.  If you watch the advertisement again, you might notice that the first three athletes all play in team sports (basketball, soccer and volleyball) and that the nation is helping them only to perform various skills required by their sport.  However, the country is lifting Liu Xiang, an individual, to the gold medal pedestal.  This is a powerful image in a country where rapid social change is the norm.

During an interview after Liu Xiang failed to run his preliminary race, a journalist asked why the public had not been warned about the chances of Liu Xiang not being able to compete.  His coach replied that they never had doubts.  While I find this hard to believe, it is indicative of a society that is beginning to accept individual success as THE true measure of success.  Liu Xiang had been hurt most of the running season with a hamstring injury and it's highly unlikely his Achilles problem suddenly appeared the day of his race.  Yet the general population was allowed to continue to place the hopes and dreams of a nation on an individual athlete, despite reality.  When his body failed, and thus him in relation to the Olympics, it is not surprising that one would see a national outpouring of sorrow and disappointment.